We generally think of February as a month to celebrate relationships. For most of us, this means flowers, gifts, and dinners—the more expensive, the better. But despite the money spent in service to relationships, as a species, we’re becoming more lonely and less empathetic. We crave to create space with others and even ourselves.
So what’s causing this disconnect? It’s partly due to the ideals we worship in our individualized societies: From a very young age, we’re taught to be independent, to solve our own problems, to see asking for help as a weakness.
It’s also due to the reality of our current lives. We’re spending a lot more time with virtual friends than actual ones. In the United States, people don’t tend to live with extended family as was more common in the past and still happens in many parts of the world. Growing up in the East, I shared my bedroom with my grandmother up until I was 19 years old. This meant taking her to the washroom at night, learning to sleep through her snoring, and waking up when she was in pain.
What We Miss Out on When We’re Isolated
Making and creating space for people in our lives grows our hearts. When we don’t have to do so, intentionally or unintentionally, as in the wake of the pandemic when many of us had to maintain a more reclusive way of life, our hearts can shrink to let only ourselves in.
It’s easy to get used to being alone—life is unmessy when we don’t have to deal with others. But this harms us in many ways. Relationships can be challenging, yes, but they are also the balm that heals, soothes, even lessens physical pain. The isolation and social distancing during the pandemic left a trail of casualties behind, especially for our youth. Being alone doesn’t work for individuals any more than it works for society as a whole.
Step-by-Step Guide to Create Space in Our Lives
So, how do we make space for others in our lives? Follow this three-step process.
Step 1: Be Around Others
For starters—and this may sound painfully obvious—plan to spend more time together. Finish work at a certain hour so you can be with your family. Set time in your planner to meet with friends; if you’re starved for time, invite them to join your spin class or do an activity together.
If you feel an inner resistance, bring your loving presence to the part of you that prefers to be alone. I know it feels uncomfortable, but I also know it’s good for me and the relationship. Let’s see how I can make this fun. Be like the parent who skillfully helps their resistant toddler do what’s important.
Step 2: Tune In to Conversations
Being around others doesn’t build a connection if you spend the time glued to the TV or scrolling on your phone. Meaningful connection happens when we look at one another because we’re wired to be moved by the expressions on others’ faces. We can read their body language and see what they need beneath the words, because words aren’t always an accurate representation of the inner world. We can sidestep getting caught up in words that can obscure the real core of our intent and true feelings.
So, create space, give technology the flick, put down your phone, switch off the TV, unplug from the matrix, and be fully present to really hear and feel the other person instead.
Step 3: Leave Judgment at the Door
According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., the willingness to provide others with what they need is the third essential step in building healthy relationships. Without it, being attuned can lead to Machiavellian behaviors where you know what the other person wants from you, but you refuse to provide it.
It’s not because you’re a bad person—it’s because you’re letting old beliefs run the show. Maybe you think that by giving them what they want from you, your child will become spoiled, your partner will take you for granted, or you’ll have no time left for yourself.
Listen to your inner dialogue, which may hold some truth, and expand it so you see the whole truth. Is this true? What’s the evidence for it, and what’s the evidence against it? What’s the best thing to do in this situation?
Our brains like to classify because doing so saves mental energy. But when we label others because of what they ask of us, we not only damage our relationships but also stunt our own growth.
We are an interdependent species. As University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo, Ph.D., says in his TEDx Talk on loneliness: “To grow into an adulthood for a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary; it’s to become the one on whom others can depend.”
This article first appeared in Happify